The CEO Agenda: Character and Style

Top CEOs understand how their character can inspire better performance throughout an organization. Rob Markey, Manny MacedaMark Horwitch and Meredith Whipple Callahan share perspectives on the most effective leadership styles and their power to shape a company, starting at the individual level and expanding beyond. 

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Read the transcript below.

ROB MARKEY: It can be really difficult as a leader to figure out that balance between delegating and directing. And knowing when and where to intervene, where to apply personal pressure, is really a difficult thing to establish. But any leader with limited time and limited focus wants to have an organization where individuals are self-directing and self-correcting, where their intervention can be rare.

And so one of the things that I think has been really effective in some of the leaders I've seen is the ones who lead by letting go. They set up absolute clarity about what the objective is. They give people the benefit of immediate, constant feedback on the extent to which they're advancing towards the objective. They provide the right kind of coaching to support them.

And importantly, they give them the freedom to operate with autonomy within defined guardrails. This whole empowerment thing is really not effective unless people understand where the boundaries are. Nirvana is getting to an organizational point where individuals can be self-directing and self-correcting.

MANNY MACEDA: So when you as a CEO are enabling change in the organization to help it reach its full potential, the style matters. And you'll still have to adjust it situationally. If it is a company that's already performing well, firing on all cylinders, has the capabilities, then you encourage, you lead, you support.

But there are other situations—let's say, transformation situations, where a company has to meaningfully reinvent itself to something else—then the style actually has to flex. The risk will be higher. The most successful CEOs in transformation recognize that one of the most valuable currencies is actually your personal time, and how you allocate it to link directly to the choreography—what needs to happen now? What can happen later? What do I need to do myself versus what I can delegate to members of my team? Getting that balance right so that you are focusing your time, the most scarce resource, on the most critical issues—successful CEOs really know how to do that well.

MARKEY: You can't underestimate the power and importance of how you spend your time. If you want the organization to stay focused laser-like on customers, then you yourself actually have to devote significant time to that as a way of setting the example. Start leadership team meetings or business reviews not with a review of the financials but with a review of customers results. How satisfied are they? To what extent is your advocacy going up or down? What are the big issues that you're facing?

Spend time soliciting feedback directly from customers, and then share what you're learning with people in the organization in ways that raise their expectations about what they're supposed to be doing with regard to getting feedback from customers.

You run into these unusual leaders who have remained close to customers long after they had a line job themselves. They do things like listen to customer calls for hours on end. The CEO of one financial services firm that we know, whenever he was on plane rides, would listen for hours on end to customer calls. The CEO of another firm that we work with insists on working the phones for a few hours every month, both for the reason that it gives him an opportunity to interact directly with everyday customers, and because it sends a crystal clear message to the organization about how important customer service is to him.

MARK HORWITCH: So to me, the key thing about style from a CEO perspective is, what can you do to actually inspire your subordinates, the other people in the company, and actually yourself? Inspiration is really about being aware of the defining moments that you have where you can make a choice, and that choice is either going to write the history book of the company in a whole new way or that choice is going to actually potentially be a negative defining moment where you're off-center and you say something or do something that actually is not constructive.

For example, a CEO that we worked very closely with spent over a year with his senior team, completely redesigning their business model in a very, very nontraditional way in a very traditional industry. Needless to say, they came under quite a bit of pressure from customers, from other people in the business, as they were doing this around the differences that they were trying to achieve.

In particular, the defining moment came when the CEO got on his first analyst call to describe publicly what they were doing and the implications of those changes. The analysts were brutal. They just attacked him, pretty much ruthlessly, around, why are you doing this? It doesn't make any sense. We know what works and what doesn't in this industry.

To his credit, he was ready for that defining moment and said, the reason we're making these changes is exactly because of what you said. If we continue to do things the same way as everyone else, we will be like everyone else. And that's not inspirational to us. You should have seen his management team that was in the background at this analyst call. If they could have stood up and cheered like it was a baseball game, I think they would have.

Inspiring CEOs also try hard to avoid a negative defining moment. In other words, they work to become centered, to stay centered in those moments of truth when there may be lots of pressure on them to react in an emotional or off-the-cuff way, and instead, they approach that in a very mindful, thoughtful way, to be able to deliver the message that will be truly inspiring.

MEREDITH WHIPPLE CALLAHAN: The best CEOs aren't the only leaders. Instead, they think about how to work through and with the rest of their leadership teams. They understand that they bring a unique combination of skills to the table, a unique leadership brand, that really distinguishes them as leaders. But they also create room for those around them to have their own unique brand of how to be a leader, as well.

The best CEOs, they really take on the role of coach, thinking about how to generate the space and also the enthusiasm for their direct reports to become inspiring leaders in their own right.

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